From May 29-30, the third trilateral summit among China, Japan and South Korea was held at Jeju, South Korea, during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to four Asian countries. The three leaders adopted a cooperative vision for the next decade, agreed to speed up negotiations on mutual investments, called for further financial cooperation in Asia, and set 2012 as a target date for completing a joint-feasibility study on the proposed Free Trade Area (FTA) among the three countries.
Although various topics were discussed at the summit, the common objective was to promote regional cooperation in East Asia by seeking common ground while minimizing differences.
Since 2008, the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula has been at loggerheads, and after the Cheonan incident, peace teeters on the precipice, with a resolution ever elusive. The historical and territorial issues between Japan and China complicate matters further, and can only be resolved through the most nuanced diplomacy.
From January 1 this year, the FTA between China and the original ASEAN members was formally implemented, and by 2015, the FTA between China and new ASEAN members will be completed on schedule. At present, Japan and South Korea have also completed various legal procedures for building the FTA with ASEAN. Until then, several single FTAs at the core of ASEAN have already been initiated.
Structuring the FTA for ASEAN plus 3 has already been completed in the theoretical framework, however, many obstacles remain. First, although economic interdependence among China, Japan and South Korea is high, mutual security and cultural identity are limited due to historical reasons, which hinder cooperation. In addition, Japan and South Korea are allies of the United States, and their foreign policies are greatly influenced by it. The U.S. would prefer successful regional cooperation fail, because it fears its influence waning in the region.
Finally, ASEAN is an association of 10 small and medium-sized countries, and its weight in the East Asia regional cooperation is rather small, though it can play a more influential role when cooperation among China, Japan and South Korea reaches an impasse, and ASEAN can serve as a platform to promote cooperation. However, once the ASEAN plus 3 FTA commences, ASEAN loses its role as the pilot for regional cooperation, and as a result, ASEAN may no longer be the conciliator for the three nations.
Therefore, it's imperative for China, Japan and South Korea to build the FTA together to enhance East Asia cooperation. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao recently emphasized the importance of signing the FTA in order to further economic development in the region. This isn't only conducive to China's interests, but also benefits Japan, South Korea as well as the ASEAN countries.
The Trilateral Cooperative Secretariat will be established in 2011 to support the operation and management of the trilateral consultative mechanisms, and facilitate the exploration and implementation of cooperative projects. The FTA among China, Japan and South Korea can not only greatly advance trade relationships among the three, but it can also promote the building of the FTA between ASEAN plus 3, and make regional economic trade cooperation in East Asia whole.
The FTA between ASEAN plus 3 is of vital importance in building the so-called East Asia community. Since the concept of the East Asia community was put forth in 2001, it's been cited many times in pronouncements as the final vision of future regional cooperation. In 2009, Prime Minister of Japan Yukio Hatoyama once again proposed the establishment East Asia community when he came into power and got domestic support. However, the conceptual definition and boundaries his version of the East Asia community are inexplicit and lack flexibility. By contrast, China hopes to build the community based on the ASEAN plus 3 FTA, which is predicated on mutual political trust, economic interdependence and cultural respect.
With trilateral cooperation under the ASEAN plus 3 structure, the region will finally become an actual community of East Asian nations.